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SpaceX launch of Starship rocket on hold amid ‘mishap investigation’

SpaceX attempted the first orbital test flight of Starship on 20 April, 2023, from the firm’s Starbase facility in Texas (SpaceX)
SpaceX attempted the first orbital test flight of Starship on 20 April, 2023, from the firm’s Starbase facility in Texas (SpaceX)

SpaceX will not be cleared to launch its 400-foot-tall (121 metre) Starship rocket until a “mishap investigation” is completed, regulators have said.

A statement from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned of a launch delay for the biggest rocket ever built, just hours after SpaceX boss Elon Musk said the craft was “ready to launch” on Wednesday.

SpaceX made its first and only attempt at an orbital Starship launch in April, with the rocket exploding over the Gulf of Mexico just three minutes into the 90 minute flight.

The crewless rocket broke up into pieces over an empty stretch of water, however the debris blast created by Starship’s huge engines at its launchpad drew heavy scrutiny from regulators.

Concrete dust drifted more than 10 kilometres from the launch site, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, while concrete chunks and metal shards were discovered within a 700-acre zone surrounding the pad.

SpaceX claimed the mission was a success, as Starship and its Super Heavy booster were able to lift off on its maiden test flight, however the FAA launched an investigation soon afterwards.

Following Mr Musk’s latest comments that the latest version of the rocket is ready to launch pending regulatory approval, the FAA warned SpaceX that it would need to wait for the investigation to conclude.

“The SpaceX Starship mishap investigation remains open,” the FAA said in a statement.

“The FAA will not authorise another Starship launch until SpaceX implements the corrective actions identified during the mishap investigation and demonstrates compliance with all the regulatory requirements of the licence modification process.”

SpaceX has made numerous alterations and improvements to Starship and its launch pad, including remedial measures aimed at preventing launch debris and a new method for separating the upper stage from its booster rocket.

Nasa has already awarded SpaceX a multi-billion dollar contract to develop Starship for its Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the surface of the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years.

Mr Musk also plans to use the rockets for more ambitious longer term goals, including establishing a permanent human colony on Mars before 2050.

“As the most powerful launch system ever developed, Starship will be able to carry up to 100 people on long-duration, interplanetary flights,” SpaceX notes on its website.

“Starship will also help enable transport of many satellites, large space telescopes, and significant amounts of cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond.”